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David Liddle, CEO of The TCM Group, and author of the CIPD/Kogan Page book ‘Managing Conflict: A Practical Guide to Resolution in the Workplace’, highlights the signs of conflict in your virtual team and offers some tips about what managers should be doing to avoid conflict arising

The usual rules of work may have been thrown out of the window, but the potential for conflict among colleagues remains, even in the virtual space. The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged many workers into full-scale home-working, distanced from managers and the support of their colleagues, while at the same time trying to get to grips with completely new ways of working

For many, remote working will be here to stay for the foreseeable future, although recent Government advice that some employees may now be able to return to the office has added to the anxiety and uncertainty.

Throw into the mix a whole host of natural, individual worries about health, safety, job security and the future, and it’s easy to see how irritation and even outright conflict can take hold within teams.

Team leaders need to be more alert than ever to signs of discontent bubbling up, so that they can act quickly to get issues out into the open and nip damaging disputes in the bud.

Here are a few red flags to look out for:

A tense atmosphere in team meetings

At the beginning of the crisis employees were running on adrenaline, going the extra mile to display a united front. The longer the uncertainty continues, the more people will naturally become frustrated and want clarity on how things will unravel. The team spirit of the early days may be tricky to maintain and cracks may start to appear.   Disagreements cropping up over responsibilities, timescales, and who does what are signals that all is not well. Look out for terse, snappy email exchanges, as it is particularly easy to vent frustration electronically.

Lack of support for colleagues

Team camaraderie starting to break down can also be a sign that all is not well. If it is the norm for people to be highly supportive of each other, the emergence of nit-picking, back-biting and gossip could be a sign of underlying tension.

Accusations of favouritism

Managers need to have their antennae tuned for resentment over the way work is being allocated or staff are being managed.  Employees who are still at home may feel at a disadvantage and perceive that those who are back in the office are getting the plum work or more responsibility.  Equally, those who do return, may feel that their colleagues at home are having an easier time of it.

Perceptions of unfairness

Personal circumstances may mean that all is not equal within teams. Some may be working restricted hours, while others are full-on. Managers need to be open about how everyone is working, to avoid colleagues feeling they are unfairly having to take on extra work.

Body language and behaviour

Body language provides an amazing amount of information about how people are thinking and what they are feeling – even in the virtual space. Look out for body language that suggests people are not at ease, for example crossed arms or a clenched jaw. Be alert to someone who may be quieter (or the opposite) than usual.

If disputes do start to arise, don’t be tempted to turn a blind eye and hope it will all sort itself out.  In the current scenario, managers need their teams to maintain momentum and engage more than ever to harness innovation, rather than wasting energy on damaging spats, which cause stress and lack of productivity.

Especially at this time, when people’s emotions are heightened and mental health may be fragile, it is important to find new more ‘human’ ways of managing conflict that give people the opportunity to work together to improve understanding and find mutually acceptable solutions.

Here are some ideas on how to resolve conflict before it boils over:

Nip it in the bud immediately

Step in as soon as you sense trouble brewing to prevent major meltdowns. If every manager acted at the first scent of trouble, workplaces would be far more harmonious and productive places. Let people know that you understand their frustrations and are available to lend a sympathetic ear. Also be prepared to step in firmly to head off conflict where necessary.

Set the ground rules and reinforce organisation values

People won’t always agree on the best way forward, but be clear that if conflict does arise, the aim will be to resolve any differences in a constructive and collaborative way, and to ensure the team is operating within and being guided by its values.

Avoid resolving issues via email

Sentiments in email exchanges can easily be misconstrued. Where possible, get on a virtual call where you can see the other person/people and openly talk through issues. Encourage openness and honesty, making it clear that employees can speak freely while keeping it respectful. People are sometimes more willing to do this in the virtual space, finding it less intimidating or pressured than a face-to-face meeting.

Keep lines of communication open

Involve the team in discussions about how work will be managed and be transparent about decisions and arrangements – particularly when guidelines are in constant flux.  If everyone is clear about what is happening and feels they have been part of the decision-making process, conflict is much less likely to arise.

Call in a mediator

Mediation is a powerful process which can nip an issue in the bud. The mediator offers a neutral and impartial support to the parties, helping them to resolve the dispute and to agree a new way of working which prevents future hostility and confrontation. Mediation is proven to resolve disputes quickly and effectively and It offers a low-cost alternative to lengthy formal processes or worse costly legal fees and litigation.

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